I’m currently reading Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, by Anthony Esolen. Published in late January (and currently listed at #1 in New Releases in Sociology and Religion on Amazon), it is the first of three books I’ve had on my reading list since I read they were to be published early in 2017. The second is Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christina World by Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput (published this week) and The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation by Rod Dreher (due on March 14). I am halfway through Esolen’s book having bought it last week and he is setting a high standard for the other two. These books are building off of two books I picked up a few years ago: John Senior’s The Death of Christian Culture (written in 1978) and its sequel The Restoration of Christian Culture. Professor Senior was a founder of the Integrated Humanities Program at the University of Kansas who influenced and taught my diocese’s current bishop, James Conley.
I wish I was adept at providing book reviews, but will say that the reason I’m so interested in these books is not because they reaffirm how bad things have become in our culture as we’re all aware of that. I’m reading them because of the solutions they propose within their pages. I’m done with the complaints. It’s time to get to work. It’s time to rebuild.
The following excerpt is from the book’s introduction in which Esolen invites us to imagine a great manor house lived in by the Weston family. He begins a tour of the mansion (a metaphor for our former culture) in the spacious drawing room, continues into the library, and then proceeds to tour the grand house’s conservatory, ballroom and chapel. This portion is from his tour of the home’s library. I thought it presented a creative way of looking at where we’ve been, where we are, and provided a glimpse of the work that lay ahead.
Then we enter the library, with its high ceiling and large windows to the east and south and west that flood the room with light all hours of the day. A movable ladder on wheels runs along a track set eight feet from the floor, to allow access to a gallery that divides the lower half of the room from the upper half. Lord John Henry Weston, two hundred years ago, had the room built in this way. The lower half is stocked with books in several of the modern languages of Europe. They include novels, collections of poetry, histories, biographies, travelogues, and so forth. If you’re a nine-year-old boy and you want to read Humphry Clinker or Robinson Crusoe, or if you’re a little older and you want to read Pope’s translation of the Iliad, you can find them ready to hand. Or you can get lost there on purpose, as you might go forth into the woods on a sunny day, not knowing where the path will take you.
Lord John Henry devoted the upper half of the room to the upper half of knowledge and culture. There we find works in the ancient languages, Latin and Greek, and books dealing with philosophy, divinity, political constitutions, law, and natural science. The sermons of Lancelot Andrewes are there, near Erasmus’s edition of the New Testament in Greek and Hooker’s Ecclesiastical Polity. The legal writings of Coke and Blackstone are there, near Justinian’s Corpus Juris Civilis and the works of the Roman jurist Ulpian. Montesquieu, Bossuet, Pufendorf, and Grotius are there, and not just for decoration. Plutarch is there in the original Greek and in North’s sixteenth-century English translation. Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Horace, Hesiod—all the poets are there; the Hebrew Bible; various works by Augustine, Chrysostom, Gregory of Nyssa, Lactantius, Jerome. It was the library of a learned man interested in everything human and divine.
If you moved that ladder now, you would notice, in the channels of its wheels, a thick coating of grime and mold. There was a bad storm fifty years ago, and rain began to seep through some broken shingles on the roof, dripping down to the plaster ceiling. One corner of the room is quite gray-green with mildew. No one has done anything about it. If you open that edition of Horace from the Aldine Press, you will be greeted with a dank smell. Spots have begun to appear on the books wherever paper was exposed to the air. You let your hand rest on one of the shelves but then whisk it away at once, when you will a strange grit lying all about—mouse dirt. In fact, some of the spines of the books have been gnawed through.
The library is not abandoned entirely, though. In one corner there’s a table heaped with glossy hardcover biographies of celebrities, like Elvis Presley and Jim Morrison. That’s also where the most recent children in the Weston family have stashed their old schoolbooks. Lately the family has taken to using the room for storage, so we also find, crushed against one another, old hat racks, trunks full of outworn clothing, souvenirs from a trip to Disneyland, a sideboard that was supposed to have been repaired but never was, and photo albums filled with pictures of people no one can any longer identify.
From the Introduction to Out of the Ashes, by Anthony Esolen: “The Rubble”. pp. 5-7
Abandoned library image source